Focus turns to Brazilian club safety after fire
By Juliana Barbassa
The repercussions of a tragic nightclub fire that killed more than 230 people in southern Brazil widened Tuesday as mayors around the country cracked down on such venues in their own cities and investigators searched two other nightspots owned by a partner in the club that caught ablaze.
The government of the country's biggest city, Sao Paulo, promised tougher security regulations for nightclubs and other places where many people gather. President Dilma Rousseff promised Monday that "we have the responsibility to make sure this never is repeated." Mayors in other cities pledged to follow suit, especially with the upcoming start of Carnival, which floods nightclubs with celebratory crowds.
Since the fire, a Rio de Janeiro consumer complaint hotline has received more than 60 calls denouncing hazardous conditions at night spots, theaters, supermarkets, schools, hospitals and shopping malls around the state. Blocked emergency exits and non-existent fire alarms and extinguishers top the list of most common complaints.
Meanwhile, G1, Globo television network's Internet portal, said police searched two other Santa Maria nightspots owned by Mauro Hoffmann, one of the partners of the Kiss nightclub, for evidence that could help shed light on the investigation.
Monday night's searches yielded no evidence and the site reported that computers that stored images recorded by the Kiss club's security cameras have not yet been found. G1 cites a police investigator as saying the club owners have insisted the club's closed-circuit camera system hadn't worked in months.
A judge has frozen the assets of both of the club's owners, pending the investigation.
The actions added to a national sense that the early Sunday nightclub fire, which killed at least 231 people, marked a possible turning point for a country that has long turned a blind eye to safety and infrastructure concerns. One of Brazil's biggest newspapers, O Globo, published an editorial Tuesday saying it was time for action.
"The tragedy in Santa Maria forces us to seriously reflect over our national culture of leniency, contempt and corruption," it said. "We must start from the principle that the mea culpa belongs to us all: public servants, owners of establishments that disregard safety regulations, and regular citizens who flaunt them."
Soccer legend Pele, too, urged the Brazilian government to "make safety and security a priority in this country."
"So many young people are no longer with us, they had entire lives ahead of them. I ask God to protect them and take care of their families," he wrote on Twitter.
Preliminary investigations into the tragedy have revealed that there was no alarm, working fire extinguisher or sprinkler system and only one working exit in the Kiss nightclub, turning it into a death trap.
Police were leaning toward the idea that pyrotechnics set off by a band playing at the time were the cause of the blaze, which killed dozens of students from the Federal University of Santa Maria. Inspector Antonio Firmino, part of the team investigating the fire, said it appeared the club's ceiling was covered with an insulating foam made from a combustible material that ignited.
Firmino said the number and state of the exits are under investigation but that it appeared that a second door was "inadequate," as it was small and protected by bars that wouldn't open.
The disaster, the worst fire of its kind in more than a decade, raises questions of whether Brazilian authorities are up to the task of ensuring safety in such venues as the country prepares to host next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
An estimated 30,000 people marched peacefully outside the nightclub Monday night to remember the victims, and demand justice. Some carried signs with slogans such as, "May God's justice be carried out."
"We hope that the justice system ... succeeds in clarifying to the public what happened, and gives the people an explanation," said Eglon Do Canto, who joined the march.
Brazilian police said they detained three people Monday in connection with the blaze, while Brazilian media indicated two members of the band Gurizada Fandangueira and the club's two co-owners had been detained. Police Inspector Ranolfo Vieira Junior said the detentions were part of the ongoing police probe and those detained can be held for up to five days.
According to state safety codes here, clubs should have one fire extinguisher every 1,500 square feet as well as multiple emergency exits. Limits on the number of people admitted are to be strictly respected. None of that appears to have happened at the Santa Maria nightclub.
Rodrigo Martins, a guitarist for the group playing that night, told Globo TV network in an interview Monday that the flames broke out minutes after the employment of a pyrotechnic machine that fans out colored sparks, at around 2:30 a.m. local time.
He added that the club was packed with an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 people.
"I thought I was going to die there," Martins said. "There was nothing I could do, with the fire spreading and people screaming in front."
Witnesses said security guards who didn't know about the blaze initially blocked people from leaving without paying their bills. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they're allowed to leave.
Inside the club, metal barriers meant to organize the lines of people entering and leaving became traps, corralling desperate patrons within yards of the exit. Bodies piled up against the grates, smothered and broken by the crushing mob.
About 50 of the victims were found in the club's two bathrooms, where the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.
Most of the dead were college students 18 to 21 years old, but they also included some minors. Almost all died from smoke inhalation rather than burns. The Rio Grande do Sul state health secretary, Ciro Simoni, said 84 people remained hospitalized Tuesday in serious condition.
The blaze was the deadliest in Brazil since at least 1961, when a fire that swept through a circus killed 503 people in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.
Sunday's fire also appeared to be the worst at a nightclub anywhere in the world since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309 people.